It was 7:30 in the morning, cool and cloudy. The Field School truck set off from TBI Ileret for a three-hour drive to Buluk, about a 76 kilometre trip. It was a long-planned and well prepared journey. We had everything loaded up for what we would need in the three-day camping trip: water, food, tents, bedrolls, etc. And we had a team of experienced fieldwork organizers who left one hour earlier and took care of everything. By the time we arrived, the camp was almost set! Efficiency is the key! Three hours felt pretty short, at least for those who slept off most of it. The rain previous night certainly helped to reduce a large fraction of sweat and dust on our faces. Saved us more water for showers!
Compared to other areas of East Turkana, Buluk seems to be really out of place: it is the only early Miocene site and bears a completely different set of faunal remains. Among the most common mammals are ancestors and distant relatives of modern elephants, pigs, giraffes and rhinos. Together with Dr. Ellen Miller from Wake Forest University, Field School students were ready to start a new adventure: one that can take us back to 17 million years ago.
Fieldwork requires a completely different set of skills compared to standard lab work. And we were learning everything we can at the amazing exposures. We started with prospecting which is probably what paleontologists do 90 percent of the time in the field. To do well prospecting, you need three water bottles, a pair of well-trained eyes, and a big heart for groundbreaking discoveries, or most of the time, totally nothing! It looks like that our Field School students were having quite a bit of beginner’s luck! Quite a few of us found really nice fossils out in the field and most were correctly identified! It was worth being buried beneath a mountain of bones, after all!
When we find nice but incomplete fossils, we may want to find other bits and pieces of the same individual in its immediate vicinities. It is very common to find fossils with fresh breaks due to exposure to the elements. When this happens, we do a hill crawl, which brings us close to the ground and allows us to pick up small pieces of bone fragments that we wouldn’t normally see. It is also possible that sieving and screening are needed to recover everything from the fossil site. Sometimes during screening, we will be able to find really tiny fossil animals such as rodents and small carnivores (or micromammals as we call them). This small bit of data would add a lot to our understanding of what animals were living together at the fossil site.
The final step of typical fieldwork is cataloging and collecting. Each fossil to be collected from the field will be given a number for index so that we can create a profile under each specimen. In the profile, we put information of both the fossils themselves and the context of where and how the fossils were found. This includes the part of the body represented, taxonomic information, date of collection, GPS coordinates, context images and so forth. Traditionally, all the information would have to be written down on a notebook. Now, we are using tablets for this which makes an easier transfer of information to our computers.
Apart from its richness in fossils, Buluk is also stunningly scenic. Faulting and erosion over thousands of years has created deep valleys and high hills. The iron-rich sediments give Buluk its reddish color, capped by a thick layer of white volcanic ash. It is an incredibly colorful place, with fossilized tree trunks and animal bones scattered around the landscape. It almost feels alien, like Lothagam on the west side of the lake, if it were devoid of its ancient residents. So we decided to go for a hike before dawn, for the sunrise at the highest hill at Buluk. And the rain from the previous night brought us rainbows!
While staying at Buluk, students were completely cut off from the outside world: no Internet, no mobile phone signal, no electricity and no running water. But we had some really cool and quiet nights. Some good sleep, at last! Take a look at our camp at Buluk!
The fieldwork went smoothly and extremely successful. We had surprisingly nice weather, with clouds and cool breeze almost every day. Three days felt very short, and we are back in TBI Ileret again. Now we are getting ready for our next module: Human Evolution. Well done, Team Buluk!